This book lived up to its title, being just 139 pages long, including appendices and index. But its brevity proved deceptive, and Peter Green, who had suggested the book, found himself wondering whether he would be thrown out of the group for his choice.
The closely argued case for ethics was not easy to follow, introducing us to a range of philosophical ideas, most of which were new to those of the group who had read the book, although it turned out that the majority had not read it for one reason or another. Despite this, there was a lively discussion, after which we decided that Peter could remain with us.
The book took us through a range of objections which have been raised to the whole subject of ethics, demolishing the objections one by one. Also, it was clear that there were no easy answers to how we could arrive at decisions on what is ethical behaviour. For example, belief in God has led to a lot of contradictory views. But attempts to use the greatest happiness or reason, as alternatives, were equally shown to beproblematic. Even the Golden Rule of 'Do as you would be done by' does not prove a satisfactory basis on which to build a universal ethic. Kant showed how it could be misapplied. For example 'a person in good circumstances may gladly agree that others should not benefit him, if he could be excused from benefitting others'. However, it was pointed out that Christianity embraces the command to 'love your neighbour as yourself' which is rather different from the Golden Rule.
The book looked in some detail at the issues around abortion and euthanasia, showing the complexity of these subjects, and the difficulty of holding to hard and fast rulings. The question of rights and duties was discussed, with the current emphasis on one's rights seen to be very one-sided. There is also a duty to be responsible, and we discussed how this applied to the right of Charlie Hebdo to publish what he wanted to, whatever the offence caused.
After considering the many different views outlined in the booklet, Simon Blackburn comes to his own conclusion that there is no overriding ethic that can be discovered by science or religion or metaphysics or logic, but he said that we arrive at answers to moral questions 'from within our own moral perspective'. His own view is that 'Happiness is preferable to misery, and dignity is better than humiliation. It is bad that people suffer, and worse if a culture turns a blind etc. to that suffering...... The attempt to find a common point of view is better than manipulative contempt for it.'
So it's up to each of us to work out our ethic for ourselves, and then persuade everyone else to agree with us! For me, 'love God and love your neighbour as yourself' is one which Jesus taught and lived out and has proved to be a good guide.
Ken Harris — January 2015